| Magazine Feature |

Yankees and Rebs

Jews in the American Civil War

A Jewish cavalryman cries “Shema Yisrael” as he fires his gun — knowing that the opposing unit contains Shomrei Shabbos Jewish soldiers. Several soldiers forage the fields before Pesach attempting to find a substitute for maror. A lone soldier fights in a bloody skirmish on an empty stomach, because how can he eat on Yom Kippur?

Spanning four years, from April 1861 to May 1865, the American Civil War was a conflict that divided the nation over the institution of slavery. As with many pivotal events in American history, Jews played a disproportionate role, despite being a minute percentage of the population at the time. In a county of 27 million, the total number of American Jews was roughly 150,000 — only half a percent.

Historical records show that 10,000 Jewish men were enlisted or drafted; 7,000 joined the Union Army while 3,000 fought on the Confederate side. Many of these Union soldiers were German immigrants who lived in Northern states with large and established Jewish communities, like New York and Pennsylvania. The Confederate states had an estimated Jewish population of 25,000 —primarily Sephardic Jews, with some Prussian Ashkenazi Jews settling there as well.

Shema Yisrael
The Civil War was particularly painful because there was no external enemy; families were divided by an arbitrary geographic line, and an issue that most were not personally involved in. Everyone had to pick a side, and brother faced brother on the battlefield. This war was even more agonizing for the Jewish families who had male relatives drafted. A Yid’s love for another is not limited to familial connection, or to close neighbors. And the guilt that Jews felt at having to kill one of their own was indescribable. Many on both sides were Torah observant.

One of the earliest Jewish newspapers, the Jewish Messenger, reported on the conditions Jews faced on the battlefield. They noted that nearly 50 years before the outbreak of the Civil War, during the battle of Waterloo in Europe, a religious soldier would cry out “Shema Yisrael” each time he fired his gun.

When asked why he did that, he replied: “I don’t know who on the opposite side is a Jew. None of us asked to be on this battlefield. If I ended up killing a fellow Jew, I would never be able to forgive myself if he left this world without Shema being recited on his behalf.”

Nearly half a century later, American Jews repeated that unknown soldier’s action and recited Shema as well.

An Audacious Excuse Note

It’s not easy to be Torah observant in the military, especially when there are no accommodations for your faith. In 1862, a German immigrant named Bernard Behrend gave his underage son permission to enlist in the war effort. However, he quickly learned that while his son was not allowed to have Shabbos off as his religious day of rest, the rest of the unit was allowed to have the day off on Sunday. Knowing he would get nowhere with the commanding officer, Bernard went straight to the top — and wrote to President Abraham Lincoln.

I gave my consent to my son, who was yet a minor, that he should enlist in the United States army; I thought it was his duty, and I gave him my advice to fulfill his duty as a good citizen, and he has done so. At the same time, I taught him also to observe the Sabbath on Saturday, when it would not hinder him from fulfilling his duty in the army. Now I do not want that he shall be dragged… to the church to observe the Sunday as a Sabbath.

Your Excellency will observe in this my writing that I am not very well versed in the English language, and if there should be found a word which is not right, pardon it…. I love my country, the Constitution, and the Union, and I try to be always a loyal citizen.

Behrend apparently received no reply to his letter, but his son, Adajah, survived the war and became a doctor in Washington, D.C. Furthermore, an order went out in 1863 authorizing Jewish soldiers to be furloughed on their Sabbaths and their holidays.

A Friend in the White House

While President Lincoln might not have responded to Mr. Behrend’s request, he did step in to help American Jews when a horrific situation was brought to his attention.

In 1861, an anti-Semitic letter that appeared in a Louisville journal denounced the Jews of Paducah, Kentucky, for their alleged role in illegal cotton trading and for being “habitual smugglers.”

As part of his war strategy, Union General Ulysses S. Grant wanted to squeeze the South economically as well as militarily and imposed a blockade. The Confederacy employed smugglers and blockade runners as a way to keep the South’s vital cotton trade going. Grant was infuriated by this cotton smuggling, and was told that Jews, many of whom were peddlers, merchants, and traders, were the perpetrators. Using that letter as a pretext, General Grant issued General Order 11 on December 17, 1862, expelling all Jews from the states of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky — all areas under his command. The Jewish residents of Paducah were given 24 hours to leave their homes.

Immediately after being expelled, a Jewish Paducah merchant named Cesar Kaskel telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln in a desperate attempt to spread the word about Grant’s actions. He then went to Washington to protest the order in person.

President Lincoln was so horrified by the report that he asked his staff to confirm it, which they did. Lincoln then forced Grant to revoke the order immediately — three days after it was issued.

According to Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, who authored the book When General Grant Expelled the Jews, Grant was not himself an anti-Semite, and eventually regretted his decision. In fact, after becoming president, Grant became the first US president to attend shul services, and he went on to appoint more Jews to public office than any of his predecessors.

Yom Tov in the War Zone

Depending on where he was stationed, a Jewish soldier could either be the token Israelite in his platoon, or pray in a regular minyan after the day’s battles were done. Inspired by a similar initiative in the Dutch army, there were several attempts over the years to consolidate all the Jewish soldiers into a “Hebrew Squadron,” with corresponding flags, set minyanim, and kosher food. However, the military brass never agreed.

When it came to Pesach during the war, Jewish soldiers would band together to find whatever was available to create the semblance of a kosher Pesach. In 1862, the Jewish Messenger published an account by J. A. Joel of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Regiment of a Seder celebrated by Union soldiers in Fayetteville, West Virginia (recounted also in For the Record in Issue 1008).

Our next business was to find some suitable person to proceed to Cincinnati, Ohio, to buy us matzos. Our sutler [a tradesman who follows the army and provides soldiers food and dry goods for an extra fee], being a co-religionist and going home to that city, readily undertook to send them. We were anxiously awaiting to receive our matzos and about the middle of the morning of Erev Pesach, a supply train arrived in camp, and to our delight brought seven barrels of matzos. On opening them, we were surprised and pleased to find that our thoughtful sutler had enclosed two Haggadahs and prayer-books….

We obtained two kegs of cider, a lamb, several chickens, and some eggs. Horseradish or parsley we could not obtain, but in lieu we found a weed, whose bitterness, I apprehend, exceeded anything our forefathers “enjoyed.”

Since they were not able to locate the ingredients for charoses, the soldiers decided to place a brick on their Seder table, figuring it was the closest equivalent.

Aside from relying on their squadmates to help supply the elements needed for a Pesach seder, soldiers would also pool their rations to be shared, because much of the army’s ration supply was chometz. Isaac J. Levy was an Orthodox Jewish member of the 46th Virginia Infantry, along with his brother Ezekiel. In a letter written to his sister dated April 24, 1864, he referenced his brother finding matzos for sale, and a vegetable soup they shared for a Yom Tov meal: “It was made of a bunch of vegetables which Zeke brought from Charleston… containing new onions, parsley, carrots turnips… and also a pound and a half of fresh kosher beef.”

Four months later, on August 21, 1864, Isaac J. Levy was killed in the trenches at Petersburg. Isaac is buried in the Hebrew cemetery in Shockoe Hill in Richmond, in the Levy family plot.

If Jewish soldiers were unable to form Sedorim within the army, many would attempt to celebrate with the local Jewish community — even if it was behind enemy lines. During Pesach 1865, a Union soldier named Myer Levy found himself alone in Virginia over Pesach. As he was walking through a small town, he noticed a young boy sitting on his front porch eating a piece of matzah. Excited to find a Jewish family, Myer asked the boy for a piece… only to watch as the kid bolted into his house yelling at the top of his lungs, “Mother, there’s a… Yankee Jew outside!”

The boy’s mother invited Myer to their Seder.

Silent Prayer in the Woods

The Civil War era ushered in the age of the mass-circulated daily newspaper as civilians on both sides hungered for information of the war front. The Jewish Messenger not only had reporting but allowed op-eds to be written by Jewish soldiers on the front. One op-ed, titled “Sketches from the Seat of War,” the writer first detailed the regular Shabbos minyan in his troop, but went on to describe the sacrifice one of his Orthodox squadmates made to keep Yom Kippur the best he could.

I know a young soldier, who was on Yom Kippur morning, ordered to take part in a skirmish, near Harper’s Ferry, which he had to go through, without having tasted food. As soon as the enemy retreated, he retired to the woods, where he remained until sunset, reading his prayers and reciting Shema Yisrael.

A Long Way Home

Images of Sherman sacking Atlanta or of other Union forces destroying towns and cities in their path sit differently when you realize that Jewish communities and shuls were often in the line of fire. Many shuls would ship their sifrei Torah and other valuables to other towns hoping they’d be spared from the rampage. Most of the time, those valuables would disappear in the chaos.

In 1865, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elokim of Charleston, South Carolina, sent their sefer Torah, menorah, esrog box, and other valuables to the state capital of Columbia ahead of the Union’s advance. Unfortunately, when the Union forces occupied Columbia, the collection was either destroyed in the carnage or stolen, and the congregants did not expect to recover any of them.

However, in the early 1960s, a silver esrog box resurfaced in an antiques store in Connecticut, where it was sold to Samuel and Esther Schwartz, collectors from Paterson, New Jersey.

In 1964, the Schwartzes visited Charleston to attend a meeting of the American Jewish Historical Society, esrog box in tow. They showed it to Jack Patla, a silver expert, antique dealer, and guardian of the Beth Elokim archives, who positively identified the esrog box as part of the lost collection thanks to an old photograph of the box — it bore an identical transcription to the one the Schwartzes purchased. The Schwartzes returned the esrog box 20 years later, where it sits on permanent display in the synagogue museum.

Notable Jewish Figures

Despite comprising a fragment of the general population, Jewish people tend to have outsized effects on history. Below are the stories of four men who made their mark during the war.

The Chaplain

Michael M. (Meir) Allen, born in Philadelphia in 1830, is the first known Jew to have served as a chaplain in the United States Army.

He served in the 65th Regiment of the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry — one that was comprised of recent immigrants — and volunteered to teach soldiers English during their spare time.

Unfortunately, he was forced to quit his position because of a law just passed that stated only Christians could serve as army chaplains. The American Jewish community was up in arms, and started lobbying to amend the law. On December 4, 1861, the Board of Delegates of American Israelites — the only Jewish national organization at the time — persuaded Rabbi Arnold Fischel, a Dutch historian who had been given the title of “lecturer” at the Synagogue Shearith Israel of New York, to speak to President Lincoln directly and plead their case.

The meeting was a success, and on July 17, 1862, Congress adopted Lincoln’s proposed amendments to the chaplaincy law to allow “the appointment of brigade chaplains of the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religions.” Following his success in amending the law, Rabbi Fischel attempted to get a job as an official hospital chaplain in the Potomac region. Ironically, he was rejected for the position “not for his religion” (because that was now illegal), but because suddenly, there were mysteriously not enough Jewish soldiers in Washington in need of his services.

That was a verifiable falsehood. Rabbi Fischel returned to the Netherlands, where he remained till his passing in 1864.

The Doctor

Dr. Phineas Jonathan Horwitz was a great-grandson of Haym Salomon, the financier of the American Revolution. He was born and educated in Baltimore and then attended medical school at the University of Maryland. Horwitz enlisted as an assistant surgeon in the US Navy in 1847 and served continuously until his retirement in 1884.

After the Mexican-American War, when he was placed in charge of a naval hospital in Tabasco, Mexico, he practiced medicine on several different ships, on many stations of the Service. When he returned to the US, he was appointed as assistant to the chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in 1859. He served in that capacity in Washington, D.C., throughout the Civil War.

Horwitz was a leading expert in the treatment of gunshot wounds and was appointed by President Lincoln on April 19, 1861, as surgeon and lieutenant commander. (If only Lincoln had invited him to that play.)

At the outset of the Civil War, the Union medical corps consisted of 83 surgeons and assistant surgeons, most of whom had never treated a gunshot wound before. Horwitz composed a widely used wartime treatise on gunshot wounds, in which he described in detail the variety of wounds and their treatment. It was completed in January 1862.

The General

General Frederick Salomon was one of four brothers (Edward, Frederick, Charles, and Herman) who immigrated from Germany and distinguished themselves during the Civil War. He was colonel of the 9th Wisconsin Infantry during its first year, and then commanded a brigade in the Southwest for the remainder of the war.

Frederick Salomon came to the United States in 1848, and settled in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where he used his knowledge of engineering and surveying to establish himself in business. Twelve years later, he relocated to St. Louis, Missouri. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Salomon volunteered for service.

He first joined the 5th Missouri Infantry as a captain and was then recalled to Wisconsin to help form the 9th Wisconsin Infantry, a regiment composed mainly of German immigrants. Because of his experience, Salomon was appointed its colonel.

After training in Milwaukee, his regiment was sent in January 1862 to the Southwest, where they conducted raids on Confederate bands in Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

On July 12, 1862, Frederick Salomon was promoted to brigadier general in the US Army while the command of the 9th Infantry passed to his younger brother, Charles Eberhardt Salomon. In the battle of Helena, Arkansas, in the summer of 1863 he was brevetted brigadier general after the war.

Frederick Salomon designed defenses that enabled his Union forces of 4,000 men to turn back 10,000 Confederates.

In 1927, the citizens of Manitowoc erected a monument on the lawn of the county courthouse in honor of the four Salomon brothers for their service in the Civil War. The 27-ton granite monument was officially dedicated on Sunday, October 23, 1927.

Governor Fred R. Zimmerman attended the dedication and closed with saying, “The four Salomon brothers deserve to have their names enrolled on the same page of the Book of Fame whereupon are inscribed those of Steuben, Herkimer, Muchlenberg, Schurz, and Sigel. This memorial should become a shrine where patriotic Americans, particularly those of German ancestry, may come for inspiration in future years, and renew their devotion to the high ideals of liberty and unselfish public service which are the glory of our country, and the best guarantee of its place of honor among the nations of the world.”

The Genius

Alfred Mordecai was raised by Orthodox Jewish parents in Warrenton, North Carolina. His father Jacob, a successful merchant and talmid chacham, decided to educate his brilliant son at home. At age 15, showing a talent for math, Alfred was accepted to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

It was not easy being the only Jew at West Point, and Alfred struggled to retain his Yiddishkeit. West Point did not offer kosher food, and he was forced to attend Presbyterian chapel each Sunday. Despite the stresses, Alfred graduated in 1823, at age 19, at the top of the class. He continued at West Point as an instructor. He then supervised construction of fortifications along the Atlantic Coast and was eventually stationed in Washington, D.C., as assistant to the Army Chief of Engineers.

Alfred rose to the rank of major and, during the Mexican-American War, assumed command of the army’s most significant arsenal, in Washington, D.C. He became an assistant to the secretary of war and to the chief of ordnance, wrote an outstanding Digest of Military Laws and served on the Board of Visitors to West Point.

As a member of the Ordnance Board, Alfred instituted scientific testing of munitions and new weapons systems and oversaw development of all new weapons, ammunition, and ordnance equipment for the Army.

In 1841, he authored the first-ever ordnance manual for the US military that standardized the manufacture of weapons with interchangeable parts, a step in the evolution of American mass manufacturing. Alfred also performed important experiments with artillery and gunpowder, the results of which laid the groundwork for the United States military’s current sophisticated weaponry: laser guided “smart” bombs, shoulder-launched nuclear weapons, and bullets that penetrate tank armor.

By the time the Civil War erupted, Alfred had spent his entire adult life in the United States Army. So naturally, the Union wanted to make use of his considerable skills.

However, all of Alfred’s siblings and their children lived in the South and sided with the Confederacy. Refusing to fight his family or develop the weapons that could be used to harm them, Alfred sought a post in California, away from the war. The higher-ups declined, as he was too useful to the war effort. With no other choice, Alfred resigned his commission (he turned down the Confederacy, who made him an offer as well), and watched the war from the sidelines, teaching mathematics at a private school.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1013)

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